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Sunday, January 4

Some of my parishioners have been asking me to post my sermons (I actually call them my reflections) on line. In order to meet their request, I'll now make a habit of posting my reflections under my Sunday postings. Here is the reflection I gave on January 4, 2008.

Surveys have shown that by last Wednesday, roughly 50% of all Americans established New Year’s Resolutions for themselves.[1] I was not one of them.

“And why is that?” you might wonder. “Do we have a pastor that’s a little short on resolve? A little undisciplined?”

Perhaps. But those aren’t the reasons I resist making a resolution each year. You want to know the real reason I don’t make any resolutions for myself? It goes back to something that happened right here in Denver 13 years ago. Let me tell you what happened, and why it turned me off to the notion of resolutions.

Thirteen years ago, The United Methodist Church held their global meeting – their General Conference –here in Denver. And at the time of that meeting, there was one social issue that had caught the nation’s attention. The issue? Same-gender marriage. Congress was on the verge of passing President Clinton’s Defense of Marriage Act, and many faith communities – including the United Methodist Church – thought they had to do something to show their support of the principles behind that Act.

Feelings were split almost down the middle at General Conference that year. Half of the delegates felt that any proposal brought forward would be a mean spirited, “jump-on-them-while-their-down” sort of display directed against the LGBT community; the other half of the felt such action was their moral duty. It seemed for days as if the delegates were at an impasse.

But then someone proposed what they thought was a brilliant strategy that could appease both sides of that contentious debate. Let me give you a little background so you can understand that strategy.

You see the United Methodist Church has two books that inform its life. The first is called The Book of Discipline, and it sets out the rules that every local church must follow. The second is The Book of Resolutions. It merely puts forth suggestions for local churches to follow.

Why don’t we put the prohibition on same-gender marriage in The Book of Resolutions? it was proposed. That’ll please those who feel compelled to take some action against same-gender marriage. And by putting it in the Book of Resolutions (instead of the Book of Discipline), we’ll also please those who oppose such action since resolutions have no real power.

As I followed the debate and watched it turn on that technicality, I thought to myself – “How sad that - even in our churches - the word ‘resolution’ no longer means anything!” Ever since then, I’ve made a point of striking the word resolution from my vocabulary.

Of course the word resolution isn’t the only word that’s come to be watered down over the years. There’s another word that has also come to be watered down a great deal – even in our churches.

That word?


The word epiphany was first used by the church to mean “the appearance or manifestation of God”. It was used to commemorate the scholars visit to the baby Jesus following his birth. The event was so important to the life of the early church that its observance actually predated the celebration of Christmas!

But then something started to happen over time. The word moved beyond the realm of Christianity into the secular realm. And over time – its meaning began to change until finally the word now means: “a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something”.[2]

So what effect did this shift in meaning – a shift from where epiphany meant a manifestation of God to simply a sudden perception - have on our spiritual lives?

A profound one!

You see when you look at the word epiphany in its original context, the word had much more punch to it. For when put into the context of the Christmas story as a whole, you realize the word epiphany wasn’t just a sudden, one time event such as the moment when the scholars first saw the star. No, the word epiphany also included the radical life-change that followed the experience of seeing that star.

In its secular context, however, that link between perception and life-change is no longer made. By emphasizing just the suddenness of a thought, we begin to buy into the notion that simply seeing the star is enough.

That’s why over the years I’ve come to believe the single most powerful Communion service of the year is the Communion service we hold on Epiphany Sunday. I believe that because the act of Communion helps us reject the notion that simply seeing the star – simply paying lip-service to the manifestation of God - is enough. Communion reminds us that the experience of seeing that star must elicit from us the same thing that it elicited from the scholars: a response. Communion also reminds us that while God will make Godself known to us wherever we are – God will never leave us in that same place. God will call us to new places.

And so friends, in this season of Epiphany that stretches between now and Ash Wednesday on February 25, if we must make a New Year’s Resolution – let us resolve this: that we will never settle for merely a glimpse of God’s glory. Instead, let us resolve to do what the scholar did: pursue that glory - wherever it may lead!

Saturday, January 3

Today’s Readings: Psalm 25; Genesis 28:10-22; John 10:7-17; Hebrews 11:13-22; Psalm 23

I went through a stage in my spiritual development where I assumed that God and God’s ways looked pretty much the way I thought they should look. When I heard that God was associated with a word like justice – I just knew that meant eradicating all of the “isms” that ate away at the soul of our society. When I heard that God was associated with a word like mercy – I knew that meant a willingness to cut us human beings some slack. When I heard that God was associated with a word like love – I knew that meant there existed a passionate connection between Creator and Creation. I spent years assembling a picture of God by pulling all of these attributes together. Without realizing it, however, I came to assume that the essence of God was defined by only two things: warmness and fuzziness. And God wasn’t just warm and fuzzy in a general way; God was warm and fuzzy in the ways that fit my understanding of those words. But then I encountered something years ago that challenged my warm, fuzzy notion of God. I saw a television show that detailed the lives of carnivorous animals. It showed lots of examples of the hunt and kills in which the animals engaged. The life-cycle that I saw portrayed was anything but warm and fuzzy by my standards – and yet it was one that was necessary to maintain life. In other words, those uncomfortable scenes of nature reminded me of the wisdom of the psalmist’s words as contained in this morning’s first psalm. The psalmist wrote: “Show me how you work, God; school me in your ways” (Psalm 25:4 from The Message). While I would personally like to believe that the fullness of God can be contained simply within my own preferences and comfortable levels (that would be within what I call “my warm, fuzzy zone”), once again I am reminded that God is much bigger than that. God spills over into aspects of life that I might otherwise not like to see or acknowledge. It is at such moments of awareness that I can begin to let go of my own attempts to define God on my terms, and open myself to being schooled in the vastness of God’s ways. So where do you come down in all of this? Do you worship a God that is safe and comfortable within the confines of your “warm and fuzzy zone”, or do you open yourself to being schooled in the vastness of God and God’s ways as well? Til next time…

Friday, January 2

Today’s Readings: Psalm 105:1-45; Genesis 12:1-7; John 6:35-42, 48-51; Hebrew 11:1-12

Last October – as the grim news about economy started to spread like wildfire - there was an article in USA Today that caught my eye. The article explored how people of faith were more optimistic about things than most others in our society about the economic future. When I discussed the article with a friend who doesn’t attend church, his first response was straightforward: “Most people of faith are conservative and tend to support the current president and his decisions come hell or high water. That’s why ‘people of faith’ are more optimistic than the rest of us.” His take on it was in line with what many Americans think. But had he read the entire article, he would have seen that the reasons for their optimism were much broader than he thought. The optimism was there whether or not individuals were conservative or liberal – whether they were supporters of President Bush’s policies or opponents of President Bush’s policies. In other words, the article suggested that the reason for their optimism wasn’t political – it had to do with something else: their faith. In this cynical age, it’s common for folks to forget the transformative power one’s faith can have in terms of how one sees and experiences the world. One person who didn’t forget the power of faith, however, was the author of today’s passage from Hebrews. In that passage, the author wrote: “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle of what we can’t see” (Hebrews 11:1 from The Message). The author then goes on to provide a list of those ranging from Abel to Sarah who accomplished great things by stepping out on faith. Today, I have a challenge for you that you can spend the rest of the year pursuing. Spend some time prayerfully discerning a place in your life that God is calling you to step out in faith. It might be doing something like returning to school, ending an abusive relationship, accepting a new position that is better in line with your gifts and graces – you name it. My goal for you and I is to have our names included in that list of people who have stepped out on faith and done remarkable things – in 2009 and beyond! Til next time…

Thursday, January 1

Today’s Readings: Psalm 21; Ecclesiastes 3:1-13; Matthew 9:14-17; Colossians 2:1-7; Psalm 92

I’m someone who generally enjoys learning in a classroom environment. I love the opportunity to explore possibilities and try things on for size. In the 25 years I spent in the classroom (13 as a student in the K-12 system, 4 as an undergraduate, 3 as a graduate student, and 5 as a teacher), there was really only one activity I came to despise. It was an activity that we did at the end of my formal studies in seminary; that activity was called a verbatim. Let me tell you what a verbatim is. In our pastoral care classes we would have to select an incident that had happened to us in a church setting; we would then write out the flow of the encounter as if it were a script of the incident. Other students in the class would then read through the verbatim and tear it apart – analyzing what you could/should have said/done better in the encounter. While I understood the purpose of the activity, I hated the way verbatims often got played out. People in the classroom who knew nothing of the individuals involved got to sit back in judgment and conclude what should have happened. The individuals who sat in judgment usually had no clue about the larger context of the encounter. Everything seemed so easy when you removed the context for the situation and treated the pastoral encounter as if it were a mathematical equation (i.e. if Person A says this, then Person B should say that). If there’s one thing I’ve learned about life in parish ministry, it’s that each and every pastoral care encounter is different – even if two people are dealing with the same issue. So what got me on my anti-verbatim soapbox? Today’s reading from Colossians. The author of today’s passage wrote: “You know your way around the faith. Now do what you’ve been taught. School’s out; quit studying the subject and start living it!” (Colossians 2:7 from The Message). That verse reminded me that while it’s easy to sit around in a classroom setting and talk about how one’s faith ought to get lived out, it’s absolutely essential to move out of the theoretical mode and into the practical mode where you finally get the opportunity to put your beliefs into action - for it’s ultimately through the realm of action where most folks really encounter the Gospel in life-changing ways. As you start your New Year today, I would encourage you to look for more ways to put your beliefs into action this year. You just might be surprised at what happens in 2009 if you do that. Til next year…

Wednesday, December 31

Today’s Readings: Psalm 8; Ecclesiastes 3:1-13; Matthew 25:31-46; Revelation 21:1-6a

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that you cannot make someone do something until they are truly ready to do it. They might do what you ask initially, but in order to make a lasting change the individual involved has got to be ready to commit to the action him/herself before that change can become lasting. Two examples of this come to mind. I’ve been involved with countless friends and parishioners who smoke. I’ve begged and pleaded with them to stop smoking (especially ones that have serious illnesses that are complicated by their smoking). In not one instance have my pleas for change worked. The smokers had to be ready to quit before they could actually quit. Same thing goes with individuals involved in abusive relationships. I’ve encouraged folks in these relationships to leave their abusive spouses/partners. Once again, the individuals were unable/unwilling to leave their spouse/partner until they were ready. I was reminded of this basic truth as I read today’s passage from Ecclesiastes that talks about there being a time for everything. That passage is a huge challenge for me because it suggests two things that I hate to hear: (1) the time tables involved aren’t mine, and (2) there is a time for things that I wish wouldn’t happen (i.e. “a time to destroy”, “a time to part”, “a time to let go”, and “a time for war”). All of these statements are brutal reminders that life isn’t about me. Today, many of you might be tempted to sit down and create a long list of resolutions for the New Year in hopes that you can force it to be a time to make some of these long-delayed behavioral changes. In a few days or weeks, however, you might become frustrated by how many of these resolutions have already fallen by the wayside. If that’s been your pattern over the years, instead of putting all of your energy into creating the list of resolutions; spend some of that time in prayer and discernment asking, “Is this the time for me to … [and you can fill in the blank here for youself].” Til next time…

Tuesday, December 30

Today’s Readings: Psalm 118; Isaiah 25:1-9; John 7:53-8:11; Revelation 1:9-20; Psalm 51

I’m generally not a huge fan of the Gospel of John. I’m not a fan of John’s Gospel for a variety of reasons. The anti-Semitic tone of the Gospel is difficult for me to digest (i.e. John’s Gospel frequently shifts the offenses that Matthew and Mark associated with the religious leaders of Jesus’ time onto the whole of the Jewish people). I also tend to better relate to those Gospels that do a better job of developing a sense of Jesus’ humanity. Given my concerns about the Gospel, I find it ironic that one of my very favorite moral teachings in all of the Gospels is contained in John. In fact, it just so happens that that teaching is contained in today’s reading from John. In speaking to the religious authorities who were ready to stone a woman who had been caught in adultery, Jesus directed the actions of the group by saying: “The sinless one among you, go first: throw the stone” (John 8:7 from The Message). What a powerful moral precedent that is for us to follow! I’ve been in faith communities, for instance, where they have railed against the irresponsible environmental practices of our government - and yet that same faith community ignored the fact that they had no recycling programs in place themselves. I’ve been in faith communities where they have marched on behalf of the rights of undocumented residents – and then they turned around and exploited this segment of the community by hiring undocumented residents for manual tasks around the church at rates that were below the prevailing wages of their community. I’ve been in faith communities that regularly decry the presence of racism in their city – and yet that same faith community ignores the fact that the racial composition of their own worshippers looks nothing like the demographics of the neighborhood around them. It is so much easier to try to “stone” others who fail to live up to the standards you profess – all the while ignoring your own shortcomings. Imagine how differently the world would look if we all started living by the values to which we try to hold others accountable! Today, when you find yourself getting all worked up about some injustice in the world – stop for a moment and take your own moral inventory and see if you are living up to those same standards before you start throwing stones at others. Til next time…

Monday, December 29

Today’s Readings: Psalm 147; Isaiah 12:1-6; John 7:37-52; Revelation 1:1-8; Psalm 65

When I was in seminary, I had a wonderful instructor who helped us explore various dimensions of our spiritual lives. Her name was Jane Vennard. Jane had many areas of expertise – two of which included retreat ministry and prayer. I never had an opportunity to benefit from Jane’s guidance on how to organize spiritual retreats. I did, however, have a chance to take a class of hers title “The Life of Prayer”. In that class she radically expanded my understanding of what constituted prayer. Prior to the class, I had been very traditional in terms of what I considered prayer. Basically I thought prayer was those times you sat still with your head bowed and your eyes closed as you asked (& thanked!) God for stuff. That was it. I had no idea that there were other forms of prayer to explore beside that one type called intercessory prayer. During that class, however, we explored a variety of other ways to pray ranging from centering prayer to the Jesus prayer to the use of Lectio Divina. I was reminded of the importance of broadening one’s understanding of prayer by the psalmist’s opening words in today’s second psalm. In Psalm 65: 1, the psalmist began by saying: “Silence is praise to you, Zion-dwelling God, and also obedience. You hear the prayer in it all” (from The Message). The psalmist’s closing words in that verse reminded me of the most important learning of my seminary in Jane’s class on prayer: prayer isn’t an activity that we do at one moment in time – prayer is an attitude that we carry with us all the time. When we approach life that way, we have the potential of turning nearly everything we do into prayer. Today, if you aren’t already in the habit of thinking about prayer as an attitude rather than an activity, I would invite you to try that mindset on. If you do, you’ll be surprised at the many new places you'll find God present in your life. Til next time…